I T is in the work of Voltaire that the outline of universal history, as we know it today, is first clearly discernible. Earlier European historians describe a world some 6,000 years old, and their account of ancient history is dominated by a literal interpretation of the Bible and confined almost exclusively to the Middle East and Europe. Voltaire describes a world of great antiquity, in which societies have gradually come into being and decayed, and he emphasizes the importance of non-European civilizations such as those of India and China. It is he who, more than any other individual, brings about the Copernican revolution in historiography, displacing the Christian European from his comfortable seat at the centre of the universe.
In so doing, however, he creates as many problems as he solves. He postulates the existence of thousands of years during which man is engaged in learning the rudiments of civilized life. But he has no knowledge of pre-history, no evidence of what actually happened during this long period. His attempts to fill the gap are almost pure speculation, and this speculation, inspired by the deist propagandist rather than by the historian, is as unsatisfactory in the way it deals with man's spiritual progress as it is in its failure to deal, except in the barest outline, with his material advancement.
These are important limitations; but they are largely imposed by the absence of knowledge of anthropology and pre-history which characterizes the eighteenth century. If it is legitimate to show the extent to which Voltaire clings to patterns of thought which have their origin in doctrines he sought to oppose, it is more important to stress the change which he does bring about and the extent to which his work stimulates his successors to further discoveries.
This is perhaps Voltaire's greatest achievement. Yet he has an important part to play in another transformation which may well be considered even more significant. In the nineteenth century history comes to be regarded as the equal of the natural sciences: the historian claims to show, in Ranke's words, 'wie es eigentlich gewesen', and does not merely point a moral or adorn a tale.